Vail Daily column: Perils of popularity
Popularity is a dynamic servant but a devious master. Blessed by fame, some preachers share convictions with quiet confidence. Others, however, inflate big egos because their popularity rules them. Stuck on themselves, they destroy their mission of helping others.
Dec. 16 marked the tercentennial (300th) of evangelist George Whitefield’s (pronounced “Wit-field”) birth. His popularity made him an 18th century religious rock star.
Whitefield led revivals historians call the “Great Awakening” that swept through America in three intense waves, starting in 1734. He challenged crowds 30,000 strong in open-air fields and city squares to accept the Christmas gift of “new birth.” This biblical term means believers need God to give them a purpose to pursue and a divine power to see life through. Purpose and power come from Jesus who is born anew in believers’ hearts when they heal broken spirits, feed the hungry and make peace on earth.
After internalizing this “new birth message,” colonials rebelled against the rigid British social hierarchy. For centuries, subjects believed God crowded them into vocational niches, such as butchers and preachers and candlestick makers. Fate denied advancing to a higher rung on the ladder of success.
After listening to Whitefield, these colonials accepted good news that God deemed them precious. No British monarch had the right to denigrate them. This conviction simmered within colonials for three decades before exploding into a rebellion against the Crown in the 1760s and into revolt in the mid-1770s.
Whitefield died in 1770, before the Revolutionary War started, but his reputation didn’t vanish. In 1775, the Continental Army marched toward Canada to conquer British forts. Religious custom dictated soldiers not “work” by marching on Sundays.
On the Sabbath, a regiment stopped at a Presbyterian Church in Newburyport, Massachusetts, where Whitefield’s body was interred. Soldiers opened the crypt and partially exhumed the evangelist’s corpse. Not acting like grave robbers, these soldiers honored their fallen spiritual hero by cutting off his clerical collar and wristbands. They shared these relics with other colonial troops.
No record explains why colonial soldiers engaged in this rite. Perhaps it’s because they wanted to carry something tangible of Whitefield’s spirit into battle. It was his new-birth message that converted their parents and grandparents in the Great Awakening. Christ bequeaths precious identities to believers that free them from the Crown’s vocational fatalism.
How did Whitefield spread his fame over two continents? He multiplied himself through effective use of print media. Baylor University biographer Thomas Kidd describes how Whitefield used print media to advance the Gospel. “Most important, he joined with Benjamin Franklin, who became Whitefield’s main printer in America, even though Franklin was no evangelical. Their business relationship transformed into a close friendship, although Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin unsuccessfully, about his need for Jesus.
“As you have made a pretty considerable progress in the mysteries of electricity,” Whitefield wrote to Franklin in 1752, “I would now humbly recommend to your diligent unprejudiced pursuit and study the mystery of the new birth” (The Wall Street Journal, “The Billy Graham of Colonial America,” Dec. 5, 2014, p. A-11).
Franklin admired his friend for holding in-check immense popularity. In a letter to the Georgia assembly, Franklin paid Whitefield high tribute: “I knew him intimately, upwards of thirty years. His integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work, I have never seen equaled, and I shall never see exceeded.”
In contrast, former megachurch evangelical star Mark Driscoll of Seattle’s Mars Hill Church drove himself to top Whitefield’s popularity. Driscoll preached in blue jeans with form-fitting shirts, looking like a buffed Marlon Brando for Jesus. His savior wasn’t a pansy. Macho Jesus crushed evil, crowed Driscoll.
Recently, Driscoll’s religious empire crashed. He resigned from ministry. Shuttered are several preaching sights where thousands of devotees worshipped a buffed Jesus. Driscoll preached about a Jesus who got in believers’ faces, acting like a superhero rather than the Lamb of God. Before his rapid demise, Driscoll thundered, “I can’t worship a guy I can beat up.”
He manipulated media. Unlike Whitefield who used print to magnify Jesus, Driscoll connived to control the book market by self-promotion. In 2012, he wrote a book, “Real Marriage.” Secretly using church funds, Driscoll purchased thousands of copies, making it look like his book brought mass appeal.
This ploy impressed readers to snap-up additional copies, which in turn catapulted the book to the New York Times best-seller list. After this literary house of cards crashed, Driscoll’s popularity took a huge hit.
Unlike Whitefield, he blurred the line between sales and substance and sold his soul to the former.
Whitefield struggled with what he called the “fiery trial of popularity” but didn’t get scorched by it. He preserved the Christmas story, which shows Jesus rooted in peasant stock. Born in a feedbox for cattle, Jesus didn’t seek cheap fame. He kept his ego in check.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com).